Review: WASDv2 Keyboard

I bought an original IBM XT from a university inventory auction back in 1991 and nursed it back to health to use it as a dumb terminal until I splurged for a 386SX16 a few years later. I don't know what happened to the XT itself, but I kept the keyboard for years.

It was one of those buckling-spring affairs that taught me the best typing is loud typing. I used it on and off for a few years up through 2004, when Ben's arrival in our two-bedroom home forced my desk out into a dining nook and I was told the keyboard wasn't acceptable if it wasn't behind a closed door. I kept it in a closet for a few years more, and then it ended up in a box of loose stuff I donated to FreeGeek.

There was a brief period where I used a Happy Hacking keyboard, which suited me until I started wanting things like media keys, then I got used to Apple keyboards. I ended up enjoying the way Apple laptop and desktop keyboards had converged into a consistent typing experience.

With the move back into a home office, I spent a few weeks thinking pretty hard about how to get the most comfortable experience I could manage and decided it was time to get a more robust keyboard. As much as I was okay with my Apple keyboards, I missed the sense of tactile feedback, and I sort of missed the click of a mechanical keyboard.

I spent a lot of time researching this: Weeks of going back and forth between reviews, reading up on the state of mechanical keyboards today, watching videos that offer sound comparisons of the different kinds of keyboard swtiches, and on and on.

Here's a good summary of the basic questions, which will spare me a few keystrokes.

After doing my initial research, I decided I wanted:

  • A keyboard with Cherry Brown MX switches. Tactile feedback, but quiet relative to the old-school Blue switches, which are very clicky.
  • A tenkeyless keyboard. My upper back is pretty sensitive to arm position, and I don't like having to reach far past the right edge of the keyboard to get to a mouse or trackpad.
  • Backlighting optional, but I wanted to customize my keys and that would be hard to do with backlighting.
  • Hardware-configurable to cut down on the amount of customization or configuration I'd have to do with software.

Landing on the WASD

After a few weeks of poking around, I narrowed the field of candidates.

Das Keyboard is popular among people who like to talk about how serious they are about their keyboards. The company makes a few models including a full-sized 110-key (the kind that have numberpads) and a "compact" tenkeyless model (the kind without a numberpad). They also make keyboards without any letters on the keycaps.

The general take on Das Keyboard seems to be that it is a premium product meant for people. The things that gave me pause included learning that they're now using Cherry "compatible" switches from a supplier without an adequate track record to assess reliability, and not being a fan of the gloss case finish.

Cooler Master makes inexpensive but well reviewed keyboards. Finding the model I wanted with Brown switches was hard, I wasn't a fan of the typeface on the keys, they're very Windows-centric devices. I nearly ordered one anyhow, thinking I could replace the keycaps, but the non-backlit models were backordered for weeks.

Thinking about it from the other side of purchase, I could easily have ordered a custom Cherry MX keycaps set and done the work myself to make the keyboard work a little better for me.

I looked at a few others including Rosewill and Ducky, but combinations of availability, price, and uneven reviews helped rule them out.

I wouldn't have known about WASD at all, except I that found a vein of favorable reviews about the CODE keyboard, a co-production of WASD and Jeff Atwood.

I sniffed around the CODE for a few days, putting one in the cart and then taking it out. I liked the thoughtful reviews from other writers, and I liked its simple looks. I didn't like the marketing, and it was backlit. I've never needed backlighting in a desktop keyboard and I'd read that's a common point of failure among keyboards.

It did, however, tip me off to the existence of WASD, and I liked a few things about their v2 keyboard:

  • No backlighting.
  • They sell OS-specific key replacements for their keyboards (so no inconsistent keycaps).
  • Their keyboards are configurable with dip switches.
  • Cable channels (so the keyboard cable can run out of one of the sides and not straight into the base of my monitor).
  • They offer a lot of customization during order.

So I ordered their WASDv2 with Mac-specific command and opt keycaps and a set of custom keycaps for the function key row to show Mac media and desktop functions (such as volume control, Launchpad, and App Exposé). Oh: I also wanted a red escape key.

Setup

The keyboard came in a few days. I had to set a dipswitch to make it act like a Mac keyboard, and I had to load up Karabiner to make sure the Mac-specific media keys worked.

The custom keycaps came in their own baggy, along with a keycap removal tool. The tool makes it easy to pry off the standard function keys and replace them with the new ones (though you'll want to be careful with the larger keys such as space and return, which are fixed to the switches differently.

I also ended up ordering a rubber wrist pad to go with it. WASD sells one that fits the height and width of the keyboard perfectly, allowing you to keep your wrists in a neutral, no-flex position. If you're used to using thinner membrane keyboards that sit closer to your desk surface, some sort of wrist rest will be necessary. WASD's is as good as any, and maybe better because it's a perfect fit. I'd recommend it over beanbag or mushy gel rests: It's very firm so you don't end up sinking into it and flexing your wrists when you use it.

In Use

The keyboard feels solid. It has a good heft to it, and its rubber feet help it sit on the desk without shifting: I actually pick it up to move it back out of the way when I need desk space.

It has an understated look, with matte-black plastic body and keys. I ordered a keyset that uses symbols only for the enter,shift, opt, and control keys that further contribute to it looking spare and non-busy.

Out of the box, I was happy with the experience. It took a day or two to get used to the mechanical keys again. According to KeyHero, I was down around 70wpm at the end of the first afternoon I had it. A few weeks later, I'm up around 96wpm. When I tested myself on an Apple keyboard, I ran between 85-95wpm.

The one thing I wasn't sure about with it was what it would really sound like. Cherry Brown MX switches are supposed to be a little less noisy than the Blues, which most closely resemble the old-school IBM keyboards. I guess it's enough to say that it's still able to make some noise.

For personal use in a home office off in a corner away from everybody else and behind a closed door, the sound is fine. I like having the audible feedback: It's soothing.

I realized pretty quickly, though, that it was also sort of loud for phonecalls. I take notes on the keyboard on calls, and I periodically use a USB speakerphone. A few tests with the Skype123 service where I just spoke and typed suggested to me that the USB speakerphone simply wouldn't work with something that loud, and that even with a noise-cancelling headset the keyboard could be a little intrusive.

Dampening

So I ended up ordering a kit of rubber o-ring dampeners to install on the keyboard. These come in 0.4mm and 0.2mm styles. The 0.2mm reduces the travel of the keys less, but also dampens the sound less. The 0.4mm have a noticeable impact on key travel, but take a lot more of the sound out.

Begin the endampening!

A photo posted by Mike Hall (@pdxmph) on


WASD could have installed these in the factory when I ordered, but I simply didn't know if I'd need them. As it was, I ended up ordering a set of the .4mm dampeners and installing them myself, prying the keycaps off of each switch with the keycap removal tool I got with the custom keycaps in my first order, and sliding an o-ring onto the post inside the keycap. It took a little while, it was a pain, and I had to go through and mash each of the keys until it fully seated. Until that happened I had a number of seemingly dead keys:

the quik brwn fx jumped ver he lazy dg
        

The impact on the typing experience hasn't been bad. I do notice that the keys have less travel, and the sound has changed a lot. Where there had been a higher-pitched "tick" or "clack," there's now less of that and there's more "thud" or "bump." The keyboard also had a high-pitched "ping" that it made when I landed hard on a key and that's completely gone now. Overall it sounds less stacatto and sharp and a little more rustling and low.

When I dialed up the Skype123 service and tested by wearing a headset and talking while typing, the keyboard was significantly less noticeable. You can still tell typing is going on but, having been the subject of a phone interview with an aggressive typist, I'm pretty sure it's not going to be distracting.

Bottom Line

I paid a good chunk of money to get a mechanical keyboard I could customize, that wouldn't look garish (the way a lot of "gamer" keyboards do), and that would work well with my Macs without a lot of fiddling.

I think it was worth it: I like typing on it, it feels good, and I expect it to last a long time. If I ever end up back in an office environment, I'll order one for there and make sure to have the o-ring dampeners installed at the factory to spare me the hassle.

Would you want one? I don't know. How much time do you spend typing and how much do the aesthetics matter? I could have paid about $50 less and simply turned the backlighting off on one of the well reviewed gamer keyboards out there (like the Cooler Master), but I'm going to admit that part of the appeal of this thing is how it looks sitting on the desk. It's simple.


About the WASDv2 Keyboard


Summary: This is a tenkeyless mechanical keyboard with custom Mac keycaps. If you remember a world before laptop keyboards and wish that you could get a little more tactile (and audible) feedback, this is a pricier re-entry into that world.

Purpose: A keyboard with more tactile (and audible) feedback.

Date bought: October 8, 2015

Good buy? Seems like it. It feels sturdy and substantial. Sure don't want to send it back.

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Updates to This Review

Updated to mention the wrist rest you can buy from WASD. Left it out of the initial review.
November 01, 2015

Minor revisions that don't change the review but do fill out a few details.
November 05, 2015

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Things is © 2015 Mike Hall.